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7.6 Taking Notes

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the three types of note taking and when to use each.
  2. Know how to organize your notes and back up your work.
  3. Plan to include your sources and take care not to plagiarize.

Some students view taking notes as a mindless procedure they have to go through to write a paper. Such an attitude is detrimental since good notes are a core factor that helps determine if you will write a good research project. In fact, next to building a solid research plan, the note taking process is perhaps the most critical part of your prewriting process.

Using Three Types of Note Taking

When you are completing a research paper, you will use three types of note taking: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Since, at the note taking stage, you do not know for sure how you will use the information you find, you will not know for sure which kind of notes to take for which sources. Use the following general guidelines to decide:

  • Summarize lengthy information that will add to your paper without including the smaller details.
  • Paraphrase information and details that will serve as significant support for your core points but that isn’t so eloquently stated that you want to use the exact words. Also, paraphrase texts with vital details that are simply too lengthy to quote.
  • Use quotationsExact words spoken by another person or presented in a body of text. to emphasize important information that will be very impressive or poignant and that will serve its purpose best if the original words are used. Keep in mind that no more than about 10 percent of your paper should be quoted text. Your paper should be in your words with a few quotations as opposed to a collection of quotations connected with your words. (For examples of each kind of use of source material, see Section 7.7 "Making Ethical and Effective Choices".)

You will use most of the information you find in either a summarized or paraphrased format. So use those formats as you write. Make your best guess about how you will want to use the information. Do not ever copy and paste from a source directly into your working files unless you intend to use the information as an exact quotation. If you do intend to use an exact quotation, use the quotations when you take the initial note.

Organizing Your Notes

Traditionally, notes were taken by hand on note cards and then filed by topic until you were ready to sort them out and put them in the order you would use them. Once the note cards were in order, you could begin typing your paper and inserting the information from the cards into the correct spots. You could still use that method if you want to. But to do so would add, depending on the size of your paper, hours, days, or weeks to the process. Since you most likely are not interested in increasing the amount of time needed to write your paper, you should keep your notes in a computer file (backed up elsewhere). Doing so will allow you to use copy and paste features to assemble and rearrange your notes. The digital format also allows you to easily add information as desired.

To organize your notes as you take them, assign each subtopic to a separate section within a file or to a separate file. Sorting your notes so that like topics are grouped together will help streamline the writing process.

Backing Up Your Work

Crashing computers can cause serious loss of data, so make sure you back up your work. You can use a variety of methods of backing up your work, including the following:

  • Use a conventional hard drive backup system.
  • Copy your work onto a flash drive.
  • Post your work to an online site, such as a wiki, so that you can access it from any computer.
  • Send your work to an online e-mail address (yours or someone else’s) so you can access it from any computer.

If you do not have a method of backing up your data, periodically print your work so that you won’t lose as much if you have a crash. You could then probably scan the pages using a text format and have the data back in your computer quite quickly. Even if you have to rekey the information to get it back into the computer, that process will be much faster than starting completely over.

Including Your Sources

As you take notes, make sure to include the source for each piece of information. Keep the complete citation in a master reference list that is either at the end of your paper or in a separate reference file. In addition, within your notes, insert the information you need for an in-text reference. (See Chapter 22 "Appendix B: A Guide to Research and Documentation" for correct formatting of in-text references within the different citation styles.) Including the necessary in-text information within your notes is another way of cutting down the time needed to write your paper.

For all notes you take, record the page(s) where you found the information. Doing so will assure you have the information at hand if you need it for your reference. In addition, having the page numbers readily available will allow you to easily revisit sources. So that you do not inadvertently leave a page number where you do not want it, add bolding and color to your page numbers to make them stand out.

Taking Care Not to Plagiarize

As noted earlier, you should copy and paste only information that you intend to quote. By limiting your copying and pasting to quoted materials, you are not prone to forgetting that some text is copied and end up plagiarizingUsing another’s ideas without citing the source. without intending to do so. If you find it helpful, you can add a colored notation identifying each piece of information as a quotation, summary, or paraphrase. As with the page numbers, by using colored text, you can avoid copying and pasting your tags into your paper as you write. For an example of this kind of color-coding approach, see the annotated bibliography in Section 7.8 "Creating an Annotated Bibliography".

Another method of inadvertent plagiarism is to paraphrase too closely. You can avoid this pitfall by reading a paragraph and then, without looking back, writing about the paragraph. Unless you have a photographic memory, this method will result in you rewording the idea. When you finish writing, look back to make sure you included all aspects of the original text and to clarify that you depicted the ideas accurately.

When you are planning to quote an author’s exact words, follow these guidelines:

  • If possible, copy and paste the quotation so you know you have not made any inadvertent changes.
  • Be very careful not to change any word orders, word choices, spellings, or punctuations.
  • Use quotations.
  • If you choose to omit any words from the quotation, indicate this omission by replacing the words with ellipses (…).
  • If you add additional words to the quotation, place them within square brackets ([]).

Key Takeaways

  • When you take notes, you will either summarize, paraphrase, or quote all the information. You will summarize when the small details are not important, paraphrase when the details are important but the words are not eloquent, and quote when the information is both important and eloquent.
  • Organize your notes by topic either within one file or in one file for each topic. Back up your work by using a backup hard drive or a flash drive, posting it to a wiki, sending it to an online e-mail address, or printing it out.
  • Create a master list of your references. Also, include in-text reference information and page numbers with each note you take. To make sure you do not plagiarize, only copy and paste when you are quoting. Paraphrase or summarize all other information. When you are paraphrasing, read the information, look away, and type it in your own words. Then check back to make sure your version is accurate. When you are quoting, take care to use the text exactly as you find it unless you use brackets to indicate additions or ellipses to indicate omissions.


  1. Find and print a research paper that interests you. Using three colors of highlighters, make a key identifying colors used for summaries, paraphrases, and quotations. Then read through the paper and the highlighters to identify the different types of information within the paper.
  2. Explain how you would back up your work at the end of a work session on a research paper.
  3. Choose a detail from this section to use as a quotation with some words added and some words left out. Write the quotation using square brackets and ellipses.